Elements of Effective Collaborative Learning

Over the next few weeks I am hoping to start a conversation about building collaboration in our classrooms and beyond.  Collaboration sounds like a good idea… but what is it, and how can we use it to increase student learning?

I want to address the “what is it” question here by suggesting a few elements that make collaboration an effective learning experience.  Collaboration does not need to involve all of these elements every time, but in my experience, the more of these elements that I design into a collaborative task the better the results.

  • Collaborative learning goals.

Having clearly stated goals that can only be achieved through student collaboration and interdependence keeps these things as a priority, not just an optional extra.  Not all goals for the project need to be collaborative, but it is helpful if some are.

  • Individual and group accountability.

Students need to be held individually accountable for their contribution to the group’s work, but the group as a whole needs to be held accountable for completing the task.  This generally requires elements of both group assessment and individual assessment to be incorporated into the project.

  • Meaningful collaborative tasks.

Students generally find exploring a relevant question, and having some ownership over how they approach finding a solution, motivating.  If a task is going to be collaborative, it needs to be able to be broken down into different sub-tasks so that students can take on different but equal roles, while supporting other group members in their roles.  No one student has all of the answers, so a collaborative task involves students sharing information, ideas, questions and understandings with each other.  They need to negotiate how they will approach the task and what kind of solution they will come up with.

  • “Just enough” direction and guidance.

The teacher needs to be careful not to intervene too much or too soon.  Provide clear and safe boundaries without unnecessarily limiting student innovation.

  • Collaborative physical and social environment.

Collaboration requires time, space, structures, resources and behavioral norms that facilitates open communication, inter-dependency and the building of trust between students.  It is the teacher’s role to develop these things and teach students how to value them.

  • Opportunities for feedback and reflection.

A collaborative project is not a one-time event but an on-going process.  Regular opportunities for student-student and student-teacher feedback need to be designed into the project from the start.  This reflection can be on the learning process and as well as the outcomes of the project.

What other elements do you design into your collaborative projects to make them more effective? Share your thought in the comments below.

Professional Development
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  • Thanks for a great article, Ros! Yes, I agree that these are all important aspects of a collaborative learning environment. As I work in a multi-national environment, I have really come to appreciate conversations that challenge my perspectives on education. This is one other element I would add to the list: challenging perspectives.
    When we encourage our students to challenge each other (and us) in a healthy way, this increases their capacity to dialogue and forces them to defend or to question their own perspectives on an issue, deepening the potential for learning.